A Cry in the Dark (1988)
A Cry in the Dark (1988)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs.

Release Date: November 11th, 1988 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Fred Schepisi Actors: Meryl Streep, Sam Neill, Brian James, Dorothy Alison, Maurie Fields, Peter Hosking, Matthew Barker, Charles Tingwell, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Sandy Gore

 


 

B

ased on a true story from 1980, the film begins at Mount Isa in the Australian state of Queensland, where Lindy (Meryl Streep) and minister Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) attend church with their young sons Aidan and Reagan and newborn girl Azaria. Soon after, they’re on a vacation up north to Uluru (or Ayers Rock), “the biggest rock in the world,” a notable sightseer destination, crawling with tourists and dingos. But it would seem that the primary danger is from a dimwitted climber toting his baby and a six-pack of beer, or from Michael’s daredevilry as he likewise recklessly scales a steep slope of the natural wonder.

Sure enough, as the advertising, notoriety, and foreshadowing suggest, the pesky wild dogs return, scampering around the campgrounds searching for scraps of food or mice. And though the people tolerate their presence, thinking little of the scrounging creatures as if they’re harmless, it’s not long before one pokes its head into Azaria’s tent. “A dingo got my baby!”

After a brief panic, the Northern Territory police are called in, arranging for a wide search, which turns up traces of the incident, but no body. The Chamberlains are understandably distraught, but their strong religious beliefs help to console them; after all, despite the fact that Azaria was so young and innocent, surely this horrible tragedy is part of God’s plan. “There has to be a reason!”

The shocking event isn’t taken at face value, however; news stations pick up the story and conduct interviews, while the authorities do a cursory investigation, yet ordinary townsfolk are quick to doubt the veracity of what sounds like a tall tale. How could a mere dog lug a 10-pound infant away so easily? It certainly doesn’t help that the media twists around some of the details and footage through precise editing to further sensationalize an already outrageous account. And when enough of an audience begins to believe that something else may have happened to the child – something not exactly accidental – a bigger investigation unfolds, shifting the blame to the Chamberlains themselves.

“People love this rubbish!” The start of the picture is largely customary, building up the characters and details around the central loss, slowly and casually, with a documentary-like evenness. But then there’s a shift, transitioning into a fascinating scrutiny of the media, shown to be manipulative and overreaching in an attempt to engage viewers, as well as the behavior of the Chamberlains, deemed as odd by their unwavering faith that allows them to unimaginably move past the calamity (“We’re just a couple of ordinary Australians”). Innuendo, suspicion, and gossip plague an initial inquest and take the country by storm; half the population is suddenly dingo supporters, insistent that the beautiful animals aren’t baby-eaters. “The dingo does not bear such a reputation.”

Faiths are shaken (and demonized), confidences are shot, and the publicity is without precedent (it’s nearly a circus at times, comically demonstrating a callousness toward the Chamberlains through reenactments posing as evidence; circumstantial information abounds). There are even notes of racism that interfere with the proceedings. Eventually, a murder trial gets underway, curiously unearthing bits of information that can be interpreted in varying ways to suggest foul play – or so hopes the prosecution.

Expected marital discord arrives, alongside dubious interpretations of the Chamberlains’ emotional reactions (particularly on the stand) and attitudes and motives under questioning, but it’s the performances that really shine. Streep and Neill superbly sell this premise – one in which the true basis appears stranger and crazier than fiction. Oodles of details populate the courtroom happenings, while snippets of the public’s reactions visualize the influence and hysteria of outsiders and the ways in which they can be not just peripherally involved but also deeply invested, creating a profound look into the workings of the legal system and the passing of judgment. Not every point of execution is perfect (several scenes could have been trimmed), but “A Cry in the Dark” is nonetheless considerably entertaining in its presentation of the famous case.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10